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(VIA MSNBC DOT COM)  A magnitude 8.9 earthquake — the biggest in modern Japanese history — slammed the island nation’s eastern coast Friday afternoon, unleashing a 23-foot tsunami that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland and prompting a “nuclear emergency.”

Hours later, the tsunami reached Hawaii, with initial reports citing little damage. Warnings blanketed the Pacific, putting areas on alert as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West Coast.

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According to Japanese police, 200 to 300 bodies were found in Sendai, the coastal city closest to the epicenter. Another 137 people were confirmed killed, with 531 missing. At least 627 people were injured. 

TV footage taken from a military plane showed fires engulfing a large waterfront area in northeastern Japan. Houses and other buildings were ablaze across large swathes of land in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture, near Sendai. The city, with a population of 74,000, has residential, light industry and fishing areas.

According to reports, police told the Kyodo news agency that a passenger train with an unknown number of people aboard was missing in one coastal area.

The government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in Onahama to evacuate because the plant’s system was unable to cool the reactor and pressure inside is rising. The reactor’s core remained hot even after a shutdown, and a radiation leak was seen as possible. The plant is 170 miles northeast of Tokyo.

The Defense Ministry dispatched dozens of troops trained to deal with chemical disaster to the plant in case of a radiation leak.

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